The First Self-Made American Female Millionaire
Picture the town of Delta, Louisiana during the late nineteenth century.
Women did not have the right to vote. The Emancipation Proclamation was brand new, only having been passed three years earlier. The South was completely segregated, and most black men and women still lived as sharecroppers or worked in agricultural settings. Racial tension wasn’t just “racial tension”: in the United States, it was racial division, and lynchings and murders were frequent. The KKK was extremely active, driven by racism and the policies of Southern reconstruction, and were a constant threat to the not only the civil rights, but the actual lives of Southern black Americans. Madame C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was born into this place: she was born a second-class citizen, the wrong color, wrong class, wrong gender, and made her living with her hands, picking cotton for a white boss. And by the time she passed away at the age of 51, she was America’s first female self-made millionaire. How did this happen?
In short, Madame C.J. Walker was one of the first black Americans to fill the void of black haircare. Until she came along, most black Americans had been treating their hair with only lye soap, and had very limited access to clean water, which meant they weren’t able to bathe as often as is healthy. According to data from that era, the majority of black Americans suffered from extreme cases of seborrheic dermatitis (an advanced form of dandruff), and most were only able to bathe once or twice a week. Sarah Breedlove was one of those black Americans, who came home every day with dirt under her fingernails, a hurting back, no clean water, an itchy scalp, and sun-damaged hair. The thought of “beauty” could not have been farther from her mind.
But Sarah’s two brothers worked in a men’s barber shop in the North, where black Americans had access to some more privileges (although extremely limited), such as more access to running water and jobs that afforded them extra income for hair care. From her brothers, Sarah learned that black hair had different needs than Caucasian hair, and lye soap strips and damages the scalp over an extended period of time, leading to the infections she saw back home.
Sarah decided that her world needed change. She saved up her measly income picking cotton, eventually working her way up to becoming a salesperson, and soon began her own company, marketing herself as a hairdresser and seller of hair products for black women. In July of 1906, Sarah Breedlove, a black southern American and a single mother, founded the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing company.
The Madame C.J. Walker company became the most successful black hair care company not only in the United States, but even found a market in Cuba, Jamaica, the Caribbean Islands, South America, and parts of Africa and Central America. Madame C.J. Walker married, and with the help of her marketing husband, attended numerous events in support of black rights in the US, and her circle of influence included great civil rights activists like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Mary McLeod Bethune. She helped fund black community landscapes by pledging $1,000 to the building fund for the Senate Avenue YMCA as well as contributing scholarship funds to the Tuskegee Institute. Other beneficiaries included Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Indianapolis’s Flanner House; the Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina; Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Georgia; Industrial School for Negro Girls (which later became Bethune-Cookman University) and Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Education in Daytona Beach, Florida. Walker was also a patron of the arts.
Madame C.J. Walker died at the young age of 51, with $8 million to her estate. She died an example of how dedication, perseverance, ingenuity, and challenging authority can let black women, in the words of Maya Angelou, continue to “rise”. So the next time you walk down the “Ethnic” hair care aisle at your local beauty salon, remember to thank Madame C.J. Walker for revolutionizing the black haircare industry and beginning a fight for equal representation in beauty products for black women.